March of the Penguins

Who could possibly resist penguins? Those chubby little fellows, weeble-wobbling in their little tuxedos, are natural-born hams. In a summer filled with feel-good documentaries, leave it to a group of penguins to waddle in and steal the show.

Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins follows the annual journey of emperor penguins. After months of getting their eat on, these plucky birds leave the water and march together, single file, 70 miles through unforgiving Antarctic terrain to a remote location to mate.

Unlike 2001’s avian doc Winged Migration, which pretty much eschewed narration and let the birds quack, tweet and chirp for themselves, French writer-director Jacquet puts a romantic spin on the penguins’ journey. From the get-go, narrator Morgan Freeman tells us that this is a love story, noting that emperor penguins pick one mate to stick with throughout the cycle of laying and guarding over a single egg. These birds are monogamous, at least for a little while, and Jacquet milks that fact to create a dramatic love story.

The director backs up the romance angle with images of birds nuzzling and otherwise canoodling. Add to that Freeman’s warm, inviting drawl, and it’s almost enough to make the glacial landscape seem like the perfect place to crank up the Barry White and pass the Courvoisier.

However, once little Chilly Willy is old enough to fend for himself, his parents drop each other like J. Lo drops her arm candy. So much for romance.

The love story may be tenuous, but the penguins are undeniably sweet and silly, sliding on their bellies, and the impossibly cute chicks offer up plenty of slapstick. (Interesting to note that the original French version plays up the humor, with a French narrator telling the story in first-person from a penguin’s point of view, alongside a more cartoony score.)

But all is not fun and games; when winter hits, Jacquet shows us moments where penguins seem brave, devoted and, when the unthinkable happens and an egg or chick is lost, bereft.

Although the filmmakers remain off-screen, as the assemblage of penguins huddles together to protect themselves and their brood from the deadly icy winds, it’s impossible not to wonder how the crew, let alone their equipment, made it through the ravaging storms. The birds weren’t the only brave ones that winter.

Jacquet shows hundreds of these creatures toddling along in an unending black line set against backdrops of palatial white and blue ice formations swept with snow and kissed with sunlight. Cameras soar above the trail of penguins, soaking in the splendor of the Antarctic landscape.

You can take or leave the love story. Whatever the case, anthropomorphism never looked so beautiful.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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